Climate change and modern society - the politician's double bind

Wednesday, 23 September 2009 at 16:46

I went to an open meeting yesterday with members of local government about making our city sustainable and doing our bit to minimize climate change. I came away with a heavy realization - that if we leave things to government as it is, we are screwed.

Although the speakers I heard were well meaning, they just didn't seem to have much sense of urgency. They blathered and went on tangents and didn't have important facts at their fingertips, or even available (like what the estimated percentage reduction of CO2 was over the next couple of years, if their plans were put into action). Sustainability is just one of several dozen issues they have to deal with on a daily basis, but even so, the presentations felt like a perfunctory passing down of official notes and far off targets, dressed up with a few anecdotes.

I was left with the distinct feeling that government will only give climate change appropriate attention if the public leave them with absolutely no alternative. But why is this? Surely they are aware of the science, the evidence and the immeasurably grave consequences of insufficient action? I think they are, so what is going on?

I thought about this and it seems government are stuck in a double bind. It's not just about getting elected again, although that is no doubt a big part of it, it's about what they were elected for.

We vote for counsellors and political parties we think will champion our values and improve our lives - and there in lies the problem. We value many things, like personal economic prosperity, because it gives us personal freedoms and luxuries. We value the ready availability and affordability of the things we like to eat and wear and otherwise buy. We also value health and education, security and liberty. Oh, and a fast growing number of us also value looking after the earth and not wrecking it any more than we already have.

With the exception of liberty, all of the above cost 'money' and some are in direct conflict with having a sustainable society. So, the message from the public is:

a) "Give us cheap travel and consumables and affordable housing (and also keep us in good health, safe and educated). If you don't, we'll vote for someone else who convinces us they might be less bad at the job."

b) "Use your power to protect our planet and the future of humanity. If you don't we'll lose what faith we had left in you and lay the blame at your feet (even if we still vote for you until the water's at our door)."

They cannot escape this situation or ignore the issues. They have been elected, and they as individuals probably want to satisfy both demands. It's a double bind conflict. They must do something and they are wrong whatever they do.

Of course this is only the beginning of the problem. We've not considered industry yet and the media they own, or lobby groups or plain ignorance, denial and addiction to power, or the excuse 'if everyone doesn't do it, what's the point in us doing it?'

But then, why aren't government putting more effort into educating the public about the issue and more money into R&D for renewable energy? Our total budget for renewable energy development this year was £450m, which includes assisting businesses in using existing renewable technology. The money spent on actual research and development will be much smaller.

To put that into perspective, a report by market researchers Datamonitor found that in 2004 Britons spent £400m on chocolate (£920m in total on 'premium treats'). We currently spend around £1b every year on cosmetic operations.

Perhaps the conflict runs deeper than concern for conflicting public opinion? Perhaps we need to consider our status as a nation? Any move to a more sustainable society that results in a shrunken economy or a threat to the business-as-usual establishment would fly in the face of deep rooted ideas of what 'progress' means (free markets and continuous economic expansion). We would risk becoming less 'developed' in the eyes of other countries that did not take similar action. We may lose international clout beyond simply what a reduced economy would dictate. Again, what government would warm to that idea?

Just imagine what would happen to the UK if we did something 'crazy' like commit to an 80% reduction in CO2, not by 2050 (our current target, actually one of the more 'ambitious' amongst rich countries), but say in the next 8 years? If we were the only country to do it our economy would most likely soon become the Sierra Leone of the Eurozone. We'd be forced to be almost entirely self-sufficient (because we'd lack the money to buy much from outside). Our status as a global centre of finance? Bye, bye. Our liberty to drive around town in range rovers? Bye, bye. The availability of cheap plastic goods for everything from food wrapping to car parts? Gone. You think electricity is pricey now? Just wait. You get the idea. (Yes it's possible if we focus our efforts we could come up with incredible developments in sustainable technology that we could trade with other countries to ease our transition, but we can't rely on that.)

Can you see that policy flying in Westminster in the next year or two?

Taking a brief look at some figures, in several studies published in Nature [1,2,3] this year, the latest research indicates some alarming things. In order to have only a 1 in 4 chance of going over the 2 degree temperature rise (measured from 1990) we must limit our total CO2 emissions from 2000 to 2050 to under 1000 billion tons. This 2 degree rise is thought to be a tipping point for the climate, after which we can expect drastic temperature and sea-level rises, loss of coast lines, whole cities and even countries, massive global food shortages and other delights. However, from 2000 to 2006 we already blew 234 billion tons, or around 39 billion tons per year on average. Since 2006 China (along with many other countries) has significantly increased it's CO2 emissions, exceeding even the US. If we assume an average yearly rate then of 40 billion tons from 2000 to 2010 that's almost 400 billion tons so far, leaving us with 'just' 600 for the next 40 years, or on average 15 billion tons per year, about 37% of our current usage. But remember that's just to get a 1 in 4 chance of averting cataclysmic disaster. Supposing we wanted to pop for a 1 in 8 chance? How much would we have to reduce emissions then? I don't know, but I bet it's by a lot more than 63%. Given what's at risk, even a 1 in 100 chance seems like an awfully big gamble. The government's current target, which many consider ambitious, is barely in line with giving us that 1 in 4 chance. (Yes, the bold action of any one country would have to be followed by the rest to avert disaster, but at least if we take the initiative we move in the direction of hope rather than despair.)

What about industry? Actually some parts of it have been quicker to respond to the demands of the sustainability movement than government. There is valuable commercial opportunity there (besides the quick buck seekers some good examples are renewable energy tech and plant based plastics industries and local organic farming businesses). However other parts of industry have spared no expense in impeding the adoption of greener policy, because the cost benefit analysis doesn't work out for them (the planet is generally not included in calculations). Think petrochemical and coal industries. Yes they currently provide much of the life blood of our society, but unfortunately that doesn't exclude them from being a big chunk of the problem.

There is certainly more opportunity for business to form part of the solution here, but there are also conflicts between commercial opportunity most often being tied with economic growth and that growth being tied to growing consumption and thus growing energy and resource usage. I'll leave that issue to another day. Part of the difficulty is also infrastructure. We have huge investments in old unsustainable production systems, which are currently doing rather well at making profit, paying shareholders and helping some people live the dream. What company board would vote to dismantle that in the face of competition that wasn't following suite?

Yes you will get the start-ups catering to a growing niche, but for business at large, it's going to be a very slow transition until they get an unmistakable picture of mass public demand for sustainable alternatives, and a willingness to pay the price for them. So quite like government in that sense.

Demand of course is shaped not only by basic needs but by emotional drives for things like sex, status and positive self-image (as the Machiavellian mind of Edward Bernays proved to staggering effect). Demand is also affected by how well informed people are. Those last two factors are strongly influenced and utilised by the vast rivers of cash that make up the marketing and media budgets of our global consumer industries. So we have a feedback loop here that helps keep things as they are. The situation is a bit like "we give you what you tell us you want (after we've told you what you want)".

Now consider the question the public is faced with (but many still don't even think about): Either carry on as you are, whether you're struggling to make ends meat or enjoying the luxuries you've become accustomed to, or make some significant sacrifices and habit changes for the sake of something you can't yet see or hear or feel in front of you and is too big to really comprehend anyway.

With all these combined factors we can begin to perceive the cogs of a giant machine we've built up around us. It has a flashing sign on it that reads 'self destruct - in progress'. Is there any hope at all? Yes, I think so, there is still an abort procedure.

Essentially the above question needs to shift to one of social pressure and acceptability. There needs to be a strong social drive to change habits and expectations. There needs to be a sense of having no option but to change.

Can we see real examples of where large scale reductions in CO2 emissions have occurred, and how has that affected quality of life?

Look to Cuba in the 1990's. When the Soviet Union broke apart, Cuba's oil supplies fell by over 70%, pretty much over night. (Not only that but the US sanctions prevented most of the other imports a country might need from getting in) It wasn't easy, but they coped. Initially there were food shortages, but the country rapidly adapted to localized organic farming (having previously been one of the highest users of pesticides). They reduced the need for commuting by building more schools and housing in cities, promoted cycling and found ways to harness the sun and wind. Communities banded together to support each other and, you may be surprised to learn, during the 90's the general level of health care and education in Cuba equalled or exceeded that in the US, despite having a tiny fraction of its GDP. So, health and education do not have to suffer in a low carbon economy. They actually had lower rates of obesity and heart related illnesses because people were more active and had a more varied diet. So the transition to living with much less oil (and much less energy) can be done, in a matter of 2 or 3 years, and it doesn't mean going back to living in wooden huts. Cuba, though didn't have a choice. Our trouble is that we do.

(From Cuba's recent activity it's clear this is a habit hard to kick (their CO2 emissions have recently started rising sharply again as they grow their gas and diesel usage), but the positive message to take from this is that it is possible to adapt, quickly, when it seems like that's you're only option.)

So even with our more advanced renewable technology and engineering prowess, we are still nudging the issue around the table. What will change this? A critical mass of people inspiring other people to take action (and forcing government to take action). It has to become the accepted social norm to live sustainably. To not do so needs to become socially unacceptable. Then almost any other inconvenience will be tolerated. It will take new tools for organization (watch this space for those of you who know about the PePol project) and possibly a radical act from government, such as forming a coalition government, or a rock solid pledge to share a common environmental and energy policy, to weaken that side of the double bind.

The media has a big part to play too (despite the thoroughly unwholesome influence of the 'business-as-usual' establishment owned media empires) in the solution. We're already seeing the effects of Indie media in this area working with other inspired people and activist groups (for a recent example look at The Yes Men at their best.). If you're hearing a lot about something and you're getting the clear facts, you're in a much stronger position to take intelligent action and you're more likely to become inspired to actually take it.


  1. Meinshausen et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature, 2009; 458 (7242): 1158-1162 DOI: 10.1038/nature08017
  2. Allen et al. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emission: the trillionth tone. Nature, 2009; 458 (7242): 1163-1166 DOI: 10.1038/nature08019
  3. Allen et al. Nature Reports Climate Change. The exit strategy: Emission targets must be placed in the context of a cumulative carbon budget if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Nature Reports Climate Change, 2009 DOI: 10.1038/climate.2009.38

love and life in the clouds - expanded section extract

Friday, 18 September 2009 at 12:55
In the final push to make my book as good as it can be before sending to the printers I've made a number of changes (including changing the font, the section order, expanding various sections, added a couple of new ones, spacing out the paragraphs more and shortening many of the longer sentences). I'd like to share an extract from the additions to the section: 'Love and life in the clouds'. Let me know what you think!

... It would seem strange for a book on relationships (and especially one with the word in the title) to not address the question: “What is love?”. We've all considered it and heard many answers. On reflection we can see many types of love. Love for friends, lovers, family, fellow human beings, partners; love can be romantic, compassionate, lustful, obsessive, selfish, platonic and religious. The Greeks had (at least) 5 words for it.

Different loves sometimes go together and love is often what we make it – especially that head-over-heals, knock-you-into-the-clouds love. We share certain experiences (particularly sex) with someone and weird things happen with our brain chemistry that alter our perception. We become filled with inspiration, feelings of wellbeing and a desire to procreate.

This incredible and natural state is an amazing chance to share and learn, however it can be very addictive - and is a phase of that love we have for a lover or partner. Typically it will settle and mellow and given time and the right mix of personalities, deepen into a more whole and rounder form. This deepening can bring its own thrill and elation.

Some people, alas, do not realize this, expecting a 'true love' to carry on being that hair raising, heart pounding ride it was at the beginning. Or they realize that flavour of love is transitory, but the trill of it is so much they go from one person to the next as the highs pull and wane (for a similar reason some people may, genuinely, love a partner in one way and a lover in another – not that that automatically makes it fine for all concerned). What type of love do you look for?

The word itself, 'love', can be an issue for some. It can carry a lot of weight and a lot of baggage. It might help to remember that whenever someone says 'I love you.', there is a certain feeling for them attached to those words (think of all the kinds and states of love we've mentioned). That feeling may be slightly (or very) different depending on the situation (saying goodnight, taking a romantic walk, laughing at a joke, etc.).

The meaning therefore is in the whole expression. Focus then not only on the words, but more on the tone of voice, the expression and posture and you will get a clearer picture of their feelings when they talk about love. With a clearer idea of the way they are feeling 'love', in that moment, it may feel ok to say 'I love you too', if before it was difficult (otherwise you can just say 'thank you').

How do you feel when you say 'I love you' (or think about saying it)? Do you say it in a spontaneous moment of upwelling feeling? Do you do it looking for reassurance from the other person that they love you too? Or perhaps you do it with the fear they will take your words as permantant and binding, when you're not sure if you'll feel the same way next week?

If you know what the other person's attitudes and beleifs about love are, this will give you a clue to how they could interpret you telling them that you love them. For some people 'love' is a huge word, for other's, not so much. For this reason you may need to either use a different word, be more specific in describing your feelings or use the word more sparingly to avoid misunderstanding.

I believe the more we understand our own feelings around love and unlock our fears of it, the more of it we will have to share and the more we will be able to accept.

The 2 greatest catalysts in my life have been love and lonliness. I have to say I prefer love, it's far more inspiring. ...

Constructive critique welcome!

If I was learning tango again from the beginning, how and what would I like to learn?

Thursday, 17 September 2009 at 19:26

I'm writing this with the following questions in mind: If I was learning tango from the beginning again, what would be my ideal way of learning in a group setting? What would I like to learn and how?

The personal connection is paramount (although, I know, this is all too easy to forget sometimes, when focusing on technique). In the first lesson I ever did I experienced the essence of this connection. We found a partner, opened our arms and hugged. As we did this we breathed together. I still can't think of a better way of starting out on the tango journey. We then went on to explore walking in an embrace, which is the basis of the whole dance.

Aside from this there are social, stylistic and technical aspects to tango, each containing several key elements. (I will talk about the music separately since it is not something we learn in the same way as these other aspects.)

  • The social aspect of tango is one of the main attractors for many people. We gather together, dress up (if we feel like it and depending on the occasion), catch up with friends and dance to music we like with people we enjoy dancing with. For those who are single it's a great way to get out and meet new people and for couples it's a beautiful way to spend an evening. (Yes tango can be a real test for relationships.) Dances are typically divided into tandas, 3 or 4 songs, after which there is a short break allowing us to change partners or at least to have a short rest. In terms of what must be learnt I would list the following:

    • Etiquette: This is about acknowledging fellow dancers and respecting their space. When you enter the dance floor with your partner check there is space. If the floor is busy, make eye contact with the leader approaching you and see if they will let you into the line of dance. A nod or smile is sufficient to say thank you. If you are already on the floor, don't stand around chatting while couples are waiting behind you.

      Exercise. The room is divided if necessary to create a busy floor. The group is divided into 3. 2/3s are dancing in the outer lane, while the remaining 1/3 practices waiting for a safe opportunity to enter the floor with their partner and start dancing, making sure to acknowledge couples for letting them on. Dancing couples practice being polite and impolite to test the 1/3 coming onto the floor.

      Exercise. The whole group are dancing in the outer lane and the exercise is to keep an even space between couples and to experience the affect this has on the flow of the dance. Have one couple holding up the lane and another tale-gating and compare the affect on the whole floor.

    • Looking after your partner: The follower will generally be walking backwards and will often have their eyes closed, if they trust their leaders and the music invites it. This means it's the leader's responsibility to look after them and make sure they don't crash into anything or anyone. Depending on who they're dancing with and how busy and well behaved the floor is, the follower may also want to look after the leader and warn them of any likely collisions.

      Exercise. The room is divided if necessary to create a busy floor. The whole group are dancing in all the lanes. A few couples are assigned to be disruptive and do things like change lanes and plot collision courses with other couples (more in the fashion of a canon than a homing missile). The exercise is for all the other leaders to safely avoid danger as best they can. Everyone gets a go at being the disruptive couple.

    • Line of dance: Social tango is danced in anti-clockwise circuits around the dance floor, divided into lanes. The idea with this is to allow everyone space to enjoy the dance without pileups or traffic jams. It is bad form and potentially dangerous to change lanes in the middle of a dance, even to overtake and especially on a busy floor. The line of dance runs through the centre of your lane. Leaders should try to stick to this line as you dance. If you do this and avoid other couples your follower will feel safe in your arms, be able to relax and enjoy the dance more, which also helps them be a better follower.

      Exercise. Using string or some other markers, mark out 2 or 3 lanes on the floor. The game is to dance smoothly without putting a foot outside your lane. Decrease the lane width for more challenge. Teacher(s) and an assistant can watch for 'fouls' and blow a whistle and give out yellow and red cards to aid focus.

    • Inviting a dance: There are several ways to do this. The traditional way is called the cabaceo. A leader will look around the room and try to make eye contact with a follower. Also, a follower can initiate the eye contact as well. If the follower does not want to dance with the leader, they will avert their gaze. If, however, they wants to dance, they will make eye contact with the leader; who will then slightly nod their head in the direction of the dance floor. If the follower has decided to agree to dance they will nod yes. Only at this point would a leader go to a follower’s table or wherever they are sat and escort them to the floor. This set of conventions serves several purposes. Firstly, it prevents followers from feeling obligated to dance with just any leader who comes to them and asks for a dance. Secondly, leaders are kept from looking foolish by walking over and being refused a dance. Thirdly, if for any reason something comes up, or anyone changes his or her mind, no one else need ever know.

      This works very well if people are aware of the system, but can be frustrating and confusing if people are used to being approached directly. One middle ground is for a leader to half approach a follower and try to make eye contact a few paces away.

      At the end of a dance it is traditional for the leader to escort the follower back to their seat. Athough in England this is only practiced by some dancers, in the case of beginner followers it's a nice thing for an experienced leader to do anyway to help their confidence (which is a very significant part of being great to dance with).

      Exercise. Everyone is walking around randomly and the aim of the game is for people to catch each other's eyes. When you do this you navigate to the other person, circumambulate them and then join the crowd again as individuals.

      Exercise. Everyone takes a seat around the room and the music plays. The idea is for everyone to be aware of who might be trying to make eye contact with them (without looking too much like owls) and to practice making that eye contact. Here the cabaceo is practised. After an agreement is made couples take to the floor and dance a few steps before returning to be seated.

That's the initial draft for the social aspect block. (In practice there would be a basic technical introduction before the social aspect was introduced.) I really welcome constructive feedback and new ideas, so please feel free to share your thoughts. (Stylistic and technical blocks to follow in due course.)

river tango (and related deltas), london 2009

at 15:46
I went up to London to spend a week seeing if I still knew how to relax, enjoy the company of a friend and some tango (obviously).

The relaxation skills still need some work and I have to admit I've enjoyed London tango more in the past, but there were some great moments. Outside the milongas, highlights include: tango practice in the kitchen, blowing a whole blueberry from my nose (I've no idea how that happened, only that I ate it about 5 minutes prior to the incident), introducing a uni friend to tango (the last time we saw each other we were probably slamming each other into the mat in the dojo), running along the side of the Thames (what is it with me and running at the moment?) with about 15kg of kit while the Thames Festival firework show was lighting up the sky and making the most beautiful reflections in the skyscrapers, all to catch the last 10 minutes of the fire garden show by the Tate, walking through a fashion shoot for the Telegraph in Crystal palace parade, sharing some massages and finally doing the first few takes for a promotional video for my book "Healthy Loving Relationships" (still looking for feedback from male readers before I send it to the printers. If you're interested in a signed copy, maybe even a credit, get in touch ASAP).

My recent tango experiences have polarized my mind more in the direction of starting my own tango group. The issue is, I see where I want to take my tango, I've had glimpses of what is possible in my own dance, the creativity, connection and beauty that can be shared. But this isn't really happening much in Southampton, for various reasons (although there are some lovely dancers here, there's no question in that). It's been frustrating to say the least. I've thought about moving to London for this reason, but now I'm thinking it might be smarter to start something in Southampton, where there is, I feel, so much untapped potential for the community in the 20-30 age group (the average age here being closer to 40-45). I hope that by doing this it will strengthen the existing community and boost numbers at milongas rather than create a faction. This way I can hopefully find a suitable lady to be my tango partner and share my understanding at the same time.

Having said that, given all my current projects I'm not sure how I'll fit in running a tango class. Still, in the mean time I'm letting off some steam and developing my ideas by putting together a tango syllabus. Just for my own learning it will be useful to boil down my understanding into clearly presented blocks. I've chosen to split the ideas into the categories: social, stylistic and technical. I'll post the draft notes here. Comments very welcome!

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